The UWM Men’s Basketball team just narrowly missed out on a trip to the NCAA Tournament, by falling to the Northern Kentucky Norse 59-53 in the Horizon League Championship game on March 7.
The Panthers, who finished the regular season and post season a combined 11-24, would’ve become one of the worst records to ever make the NCAA tournament. The team had lost their last nine games heading into the tournament, last winning Jan. 27 at Detroit.
This season was seen as a transition year, with a new head coach, LaVall Jordan, and losing five prominent players, two to graduation and three to transfer. The three students transferred because of the controversial firing of former Head Coach Rob Jeter by Athletic Director Amanda Braun. Braun said at the time of the firing that it was about the team not finishing in the top three in conference. Meanwhile, the team had won 20 games, including huge wins over Wisconsin and Minnesota. The backlash received after the firing was unrelenting, but the team had to move on. In comes Jordan.
“I know people in the Milwaukee community, at our University and in our city, inspired a lot of them to believe,” Coach Jordan said during his post-game press conference after the loss. “I have so much respect for our young men, our student-athletes that are wearing the jersey and representing Milwaukee with so much pride. They showed up every day, regardless of the circumstance and just wanted to improve-be a better team, be better teammates, to figure out how to get things done together. I couldn’t be more thankful for a first group to coach.”
Jordan came to the Panthers after stops as an assistant coach at Butler, Iowa, and Michigan. He was tasked to reassemble the roster and create a winning team. It was, in no way, an easy task. The team had only three seniors, Guard/Forward Cody Wichmann, who was the highest scorer coming back from the year before, Forward Dan Studer, a rarely used backup big man, and Guard Cameron Harvey, a grad school transfer from Stetson University. The starting lineup for the team consisted of one senior (Wichmann), a mix between the senior Harvey and Freshman Jeremy Johnson, one junior (Forward Brett Prahl), one sophomore (leading scorer Brock Stull), and one freshman (August Haas).
One of the biggest keys to the surprising run was an increase in the team’s free throw percentage. For the season, the team shot a poor 66 percent from the free throw line. However, during the tournament, the team shot a more than respectable 75 percent.
“We haven’t been a great foul-shooting team all season,” Jordan said after the first game, a 20-point drubbing of Detroit. “But we talked about the way to advance, at this point of the season, is you have to finish around the rim and you have to make free throws.”
The team struggled to find an identity during the regular season, as many young teams do. They finished last in the conference at 4-14, and had lost their last nine games heading into the post season conference tournament. They entered as the last seed, and were viewed as long shots to win the tournament. Attendance was down, and student interaction was lower than the year before, but the Panthers kept fighting.
As they progressed deeper into the tournament, the student body began to reinvigorate its interest in the team. By the championship game, the whole school was buzzing, as was the city of Milwaukee. The team never lost hope, even being the underdogs, because they knew there were always die hard fans with them every step of the way. If you were to go to every home game, you’d be likely to find quite a few familiar faces in the front few rows of the student section. Alex Weber, a UWM student who has gone to the majority of home games over his two years and the conference tournament in Detroit last year, decided to skip school and go to the championship game of this year’s tournament.
“That’s the beauty of sports,” Weber said. “Anyone can make a run at any time. The team struggled, but putting it together at the right time can lead to a run like the one we made.”
The team became the first 10 seed in conference history to win a tournament game. The success they had in the tournament can create more buzz about the team on campus and city wide, but also can make the team look a lot better heading into recruiting season. A postseason run as improbable as the one the Panthers went on can show recruits that anything is possible in college basketball, including almost becoming the biggest Cinderella story in NCAA history.
The run in the conference tournament gives the team momentum heading into next season. Coach Jordan will have a year under his belt, and the young team will be a season older. As of this writing, the Panthers have secured two letters of intent from two-star guards Dylan Alderson and Carson Newsome, and guard/forward Zac saddler will join the rotation after taking a redshirt this season. The team will continue to be guard heavy, with only two scholarship forwards on the roster. Coach Jordan will be tasked with turning a late run of success into a full year of success next season.